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The Last Five Years (Bristol)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Terrifically poignant, Jason Robert Brown 's one-act musical, ‘The Last Five Years', spans an entire relationship from the promising start, to the bitter end - or vice versa, depending on whose perspective you are following. Whilst the successful novelist, Jamie's story plays out in chronological order, his partner Cathy, an aspiring actress, experiences their relationship in reverse, making abundantly clear that Jamie's excitement is in vein.

Based partly on Brown's own failed marriage, the play follows novelist Jamie Wellerstein (Matthew Ronchetti) in his journey from being a mere student to a successful novelist; whilst his partner, aspiring actress Catherine Hiatt (Catriona Mackenzie) can't catch a break.

The two-person cast perform the operetta as monologue. Though it is more akin to a one-sided dialogue, and through the painful familiarity of the arguments and conversations within the couple's relationships, the audience can readily fill in the missing elements of the one sided script. The couple only interact once, as their time zones collide at their wedding and then move away from each other once again.

The simple staging comprises of just a few household items and half packed boxes strewn across the rear of the stage, representing the end of Cathy and Jamie's time together.

The miniscule orchestra is made up of just two accomplished pianists, one of which also occasionally shows his skills as a fiddle player. The intense score is full of boisterous and outlandish key changes and genres and really puts the actors vocal skills to the test.

Towards the beginning of the performance, this is quite unforgiving of Mackenzie and Ronchetti, who both struggle to grasp the score, showing the need to warm up before stepping out on to the stage. However, as the performance progresses, their voices improve from the vocal chords of two accomplished amateurs to pure liquid gold. By the end of the showcase the control of their runs, vibrato and breathing is second to none.

Much like their singing, the actors don't quite seem to gel with their script in the initial few scenes, but as the relationship progresses, much like their vocals, they become more believable and seem to settle in to their roles, mastering the script, which is – like the score – rife with complexity and a good amount of humour.

In this adaption, Director Martin Berry displays the most astute appreciation of real human emotions and the authenticity of how people behave in the circumstances lain out in the musical's plot. There are no fantastical lighting shows, costume changes or extraneous props to distract from the heart-breaking, yet beautiful simplicity of the tale of a doomed relationship. And there is no need for them.

Whilst Ronchetti excels as his character's oldest incarnation, Mackenzie has her shining moments as a younger Cathy. The players' stand out scenes both come after the wedding. Ronchetti is particularly excellent during ‘The Schmuel Song' where Jamie tells Cathy the story of an old man, using clever puppetry of a woollen jumper. Whilst Catriona stands out during her audition sequence, in which Cathy appears to have an onstage breakdown caused by her insecurities as an actress.

The Last Five Years emulates a relationship, from its hopeful and exciting beginnings, to its sour and unforgiving end with elegance, class and a real understanding of emotion. From the sublime execution of the score from the two-man orchestra, to the brilliantly acted script, Martin Berry's direction of Brown's discretely empowering composition highlights the bittersweet lessons that we all learn, time and time again, until we eventually fall in to that one love that will last forever.

Hannah Sweetnam